Few films open with a timeliness like that of THE POST. After all, when the sitting POTUS derides the Washington Post as “fake news”, a film that both lauds the paper and decries such autocratic leanings couldn’t be more opportune. And THE POST does tell one hell of a story about a newspaper seeking the truth while fighting forces in the highest corridors of power. It’s a film that is a must-see just on its relevance alone.
The film from director Steven Spielberg and first-time screenwriter Liz Hannah, illustrates the Post’s quest to release the scandalous Pentagon Papers in 1971. They were so controversial because they documented the futile efforts of the United State in Viet Nam over the course of four administrations (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon) and the cover-up of its less than winning facts. Those four presidents knowingly sent thousands to their deaths in a war that was deemed unwinnable almost from the start.
The film starts with that secret data being copied illegally by Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), an aide to Asst. Secretary of Defense John T. McNaughton. He then sends the reams of paper to the New York Times and the Washington Post. The Times prints excerpts first and in doing so, legal action is brought upon them from the White House. Did the Times commit treason? Did they break the law? And what will the Post do in response to it all?
The Post faced a humongous risk following in the Times’ footsteps, and the rest of the film centers around the debate to publish or not. Reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), who received the papers, pushes his editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) to splash the remainder of them all over the Post, arguing that the people have the right to know the truth, and that, quite frankly, he always wanted to be part of a revolution. Indeed, the revolutionary release of the papers ultimately changed the course of the Viet Nam War, not to mention help corrode people's trust in the federal government, as well as start the decline of the Nixon administration. Bradlee, being a fly in the ointment himself, is more than gung-ho to go ahead, but he faces an uphill battle in persuading the Post’s conservative brass to see it his way.
While Bradlee and his cadre of reporters, including Meg Greenfield (Carrie Coon) and Howard Simons (David Cross), pour over the papers in his house readying them for publication, he must go back and forth to the home of publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) as well, imploring her to run with the story. The clock is ticking on the deadline as the publisher weighs the pros and cons in her residence, during a dinner party no less. Joining in the debate are various board members in attendance, as well as other high-powered players. Even former Secretary of Defense Bob McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) is on her guest list, and he offers his thoughts, especially since he's implicated in the papers for his time under Kennedy and Johnson. It's a lot for her to handle, and there are no easy answers.
In many ways, this is a war movie, albeit one whose battlefield is the front page. Spielberg does a very good job milking the drama out of what is essentially an ethical debate between talking heads onscreen, but he crafts an edge-of-your-seat thriller that is never less than involving, and frequently enthralling.
There are a few issues though that mar his overall efforts. For starters, as great an actor as Hanks is, he's not quite right as Bradlee, lacking the inherent gruffness of the legendary newsman. He attempts to pull off the cragginess and aggression with cynical expressions and a dangling cigarette, but he's not to the manor born like Jason Robards was essaying the role in the iconic Post drama ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN in 1976.
Spielberg also has trouble enabling all the supporting players to come to life in truly meaningful ways. It's a great cast he's assembled, what with Bradley Whitford, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sarah Paulson, Alison Brie, Jesse Plemons, Zach Woods, and Jessie Mueller among them, but few register as strongly as they should. Hannah’s script short-shrifts too many of them, and Spielberg fails to identify the large roster of characters with an onscreen title for each explaining their significance when they're introduced onscreen.
THE POST makes a number of other missteps too. The legendary Meg Greenfield, one of the most important journalists of the last 60 years, isn’t given a single great line or scene in this movie. And to cast a talent of Coon’s capabilities, yet deprive her of such, is an awful oversight. Same with Matthew Rhys, who as Ellsberg gets almost no screen time. He’s the catalyst of all this and yet as written by Hannah, he’s all but a cipher.
Of course, Spielberg had the Herculean task of creating a newspaper drama about the Washington Post in the shadow of the legendary classic ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN from 42 years ago. There, Alan J. Pakula directed William Goldman’s taut script as if it was film noir, and Gordon Willis’ shadowy cinematography, along with David Shire’s moody score, only enhanced that POV. The Post doesn't try to recreate such a take, but it's style is almost too straight forward, lacking edge. Even legendary film composer John Williams contributes a good score without it being particularly memorable.
What Spielberg and Hannah do get spectacularly right is the character of Graham. She is the truest hero of this story since she is the one who could say "Yes" and did. Her daring-do was all the more incredible considering that few women yielded such power in those days. Streep fills the role completely, acing the East Coast patrician requirements, yet also bringing forth all of Graham's steely reserve. It's one of her all-time best performances.
At the end of it all, THE POST is terrific in so many ways. It’s smart, probing, and rich with period detail. Still, the film feels a bit rushed, as if its script could have used another pass through the typewriter, and the production would've benefited from more time in pre-production. Spielberg had a very short window to shoot this, squeezing it in between his lensing of READY PLAYER ONE and waiting for its post effects to be completed. Sometimes, that haste shows. Look no further than how the veteran filmmaker presents Nixon in the White House windows. He's shown as a wildly gesturing figure in an amateurish performance that surely would've been corrected had Spielberg more time to complete it. His film may miss greatness due to errors like that, but the timing of THE POST just may trump such shortcomings.